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Work can wait. Your mental health can't. How to make the most of a break

(CNN) Deciding to take time off of work isn't easy. Taking a leave of absence for mental health reasons is even harder.

Making the choice to step back for your mental wellbeing when you happen to be the youngest member of Britain's Parliament? That's an especially bold and brave decision.

In late May, 24-year-old Nadia Whittome shared that she had been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder. She announced that she was taking several weeks off as advised by her doctor.

"Through being open about my own mental health struggle, I hope that others will also feel able to talk about theirs, and that I can play a small role in creating greater acceptance and facilitating healthier discussions around this issue," she wrote on her website.

Days later, tennis star Naomi Osaka announced she was withdrawing from the French Open after refusing to speak with the media. Osaka revealed she had "suffered long bouts of depression" since winning her first Grand Slam title in 2018.

Whittome and Osaka aren't alone in their decisions to step back from work for their mental health. Healthcare workers and teachers are leaving their positions in droves, citing burnout from the Covid-19 crisis. Journalists are stepping back from their high-stress jobs too; Stacy-Marie Ishmael wrote about her decision on Twitter in March.

"I'm taking a break," she wrote. "I'm stepping down from @TexasTribune, where I've spent the last year operating at a relentless and breakneck pace to ensure that our journalism could rise to the demands of the moment."

"It did. We did," Ishmael continued, "And in the process, I *totally* burned out."

In the United States, there's a shared sense of optimism as Covid-19 restrictions are being lifted across the country and people are returning to their old routines. But experts warn that there's a second wave of mental health challenges to contend with — the long-term effects of heightened anxiety, depression, stress and isolation that countless Americans have faced throughout the pandemic.

Considering this, it's not a surprise that many people who can are choosing to take time off from work.

Although it's a privilege not afforded to everyone, temporarily stepping away from our jobs can have some major benefits. Taking time off can improve long-term job performance and avoid short-term burnout. Research shows that people who take sabbaticals not only benefit from reduced stress during their time off, but also experience less stress after returning to work.

I would know. In 2017, a few months after my husband unexpectedly passed away, I found myself struggling at work. I was having trouble concentrating, found it difficult to care about tasks, and I had to escape to the office bathroom to cry more times than I could count. After a few weeks of going through the motions of my job, I asked my bosses for a three-month sabbatical from work. Thankfully, they agreed and paid half of my salary during my sabbatical.

When I returned to the office, I was more engaged and productive. I was better able to focus on tasks and once again cared about the work I was doing. Most importantly, I was in a better spot mentally and emotionally. Although I had a long road of healing ahead of me, I had given myself some much-needed time to lean into my grief instead of trying to push aside my emotions at the workplace.

According to a 2020 report from the Commonwealth Fund, Americans suffered more mental health consequences from the Covid-19 crisis than people in nine other high-income countries. Thirty-three percent of respondents reported experiencing stress, anxiety or major sadness that was difficult to cope with alone.

These are feelings that shouldn't be ignored. I know that, unfortunately, taking time off of work isn't an option for everyone, but I do wish we were granted more opportunities to prioritize our mental wellbeing over personal productivity.

Here are the lessons I learned from my sabbatical. Perhaps you can use them, too.

Have a plan in place

When I asked my bosses for time off, I had already written out what projects I was responsible for and had offered up ways to delegate those tasks while I was out. Presenting this solution made it a lot easier for higher-ups to grant my request. It also alleviated some of the guilt I felt about temporarily abandoning my responsibilities.

Whittome, the British politician, did the same. "While I am away, constituents should continue to contact my office as normal. My fantastic staff team will still be there to support you with any issues you may have."

Before you take time off, explore what options you have for financial support. You might be able to use accrued paid vacation, sick leave or family leave. Workers may also be covered under the Families First Coronavirus Response Act, which requires some employers to provide employees with paid sick leave or expanded family and medical leave for reasons related to Covid-19.

If paid time off isn't an option, consider setting aside some money to cover costs while you're not working. Again, not everyone has the privilege of doing this -- but if it's possible, it's a smart idea. Figure out your monthly costs, and set a savings goal.

Allow yourself to feel your feelings

Work takes up a lot of our time. And if we stop working? There's a lot of time to fill. Some of the emotions you may have been pushing aside in order to get things done will likely come bubbling up. Grief, anger, sadness, fear, depression, and so on. Even though it's uncomfortable, try and feel those feelings. This is where the real healing begins.

Going for a walk can give you time to process your emotions.

During my sabbatical, I worked through my grief and other difficult feelings through a mix of journaling, therapy and lots of long walks in nature. It all helped. Even though facing my sadness was scary, it was exactly what I needed — and exactly what I wasn't able to do in a bustling office.

Identify ways to support yourself upon return

Taking time off allowed me to assess what I missed about work and what routines were unhealthy for me. Catching up with coworkers over lunch? Great! Eating a sad desk lunch alone in front of my computer? Not so good.

Before I returned to the office, I made a list of work resolutions, including avoiding screens at certain hours, limiting the number of meetings in a day, and turning off Slack and other distractions when I needed to do some deep thinking. All of these things made for a smoother and less stressful transition back to the workplace.

While not everyone can take time off from work, there are steps people can take when it feels like burnout is on the horizon.

Prioritize your mental health

Even if you don't have the option to step away from your job, you can still set boundaries that support your mental wellbeing, like Osaka did in choosing not to speak with the media.

Many mental health advocates have applauded Osaka for her bold decision. "Let's allow Naomi Osaka to be a shining example of holding your boundaries to prioritize peace," therapist Nedra Glover Tawwab posted on Instagram. "Your mental health is more important than pretending to be okay for others."

If you're suffering from depression, anxiety or having trouble focusing, it's worth seeking support. Your workplace might have an Employee Assistance Program that offers free, confidential counseling. You could start a meditation practice or begin journaling about your feelings. Or you could take a page from Osaka's book and identify a specific work stressor and look for ways to step away from it.

Can you stop responding to emails after dinnertime? Block off time in your calendar to avoid back-to-back meetings? Negotiate for a hybrid work schedule so you don't have to commute to the office five days a week? Look for ways to set boundaries that work best for you and your mental wellbeing.

Make time for gratitude

This final tip is the simplest and, perhaps, the most effective. Time and again, research has proven the benefits of gratitude. People who take time for gratitude tend to be happier and healthier and have better relationships with others. At the same time, they have lower levels of negative emotions such as anger, depression and shame.

Right now might feel like an odd time to be grateful. We're still in the midst of a pandemic. There are still thousands of people dying from Covid-19 worldwide each day. But it's during the darkest times that gratitude can benefit us most. As I wrote in November 2017, months after returning to work from my sabbatical, "Gratitude has saved me."

"In the months since my husband unexpectedly died, I've struggled," I wrote. "I've felt hopeless and scared. I've been angry and lost. I've hit plenty of low points. But I've pulled myself out of those ruts time and again by finding things to be thankful for."

Taking a bit of time each day for gratitude works wonders. You could start a gratitude practice at the dinner table, where everyone shares something they're grateful for. You could set aside five minutes each morning to give thanks over a warm cup of coffee. Or you could do what I did in 2017, and list three things at the end of each day that you appreciated. I still look at that gratitude journal from time to time; it reminds me how lucky I was, even when life was impossibly hard.

We were all thrown into the pandemic at the same time, but we're emerging from lockdown at different paces and in different ways. Some of us have lost loved ones to Covid-19. Almost all of us have lost a sense of safety and security that we once had. We've all been through major changes and we are all feeling the effects of those adjustments.

I'm heartened by the fact that leaders like Whittome, Osaka and Ishmael are talking openly about their mental health. It's a silver lining of the pandemic — more of us are publicly admitting when things are not OK.

If we don't take care of ourselves, we can't take care of other things — including our jobs. As we continue to readjust to life after lockdown, I hope we can all find ways to attend to our mental wellbeing and to encourage others to do the same.

Katie Hawkins-Gaar is an advisory board member for the Rosalynn Carter Fellowships for Mental Health Journalism. She writes a weekly newsletter called "My Sweet Dumb Brain."